September 16, 2007. Peter is so difficult on the way home from school Friday that I ask Sophie to go inside so he and I can have a private discussion, right there in the car, inside the garage. No distractions, no getting out of his car seat until he at least hears me out. Peter can’t or won’t answer “why” questions and so instead I offer several suggestions to open him up, hoping something finds purchase. When I finally ask whether he thinks I love Sophie more than him, the usual parroting stops and he answers “yes”. My heart sinks. We’ve covered this territory before but Peter doesn’t understand cause and effect. He doesn’t understand his behavior affects how people treat and feel about him at any given point in time. For instance, he shouldn’t expect to be showered with affection on the heels of throwing Sophie’s presents in the garbage bin, but he does. I try explaining again, a wrenchingly sad task because Peter also doesn’t accept or trust the permanence of love, but then I stop. What he does next takes my breath away. My emotionally blunted son, the boy who hurts himself and tells me I smell, crawls over the seat into my lap, takes a tissue and gently dries my teary eyes. I suddenly ache with a pang of love so big that it catches me off guard. I can’t stop crying now and so he comforts me, “I know, Mom, I know,” he says. “I’m sorry, Mommy.” I tell Pat that night and cry again all over. But the same volatile, moody boy wakes us the next morning; the talk has had no effect and my renewed hope wilts. The opportunity arises again later in the day, and the talk begins anew, as though Friday’s discussion never occurred. This time Pat is with us. Twenty minutes later, we arrive at the same emotional, cathartic end point that we reached in the garage the day before. And again, Peter is wiping my eyes, gently following the path of my tears with his fingers. He’s not faking or manufacturing a moment. It was as real to him last night as it was Friday after school, and so it is real for me too. I have no choice but to sway in time to Peter’s rhythms, no matter how inconsonant. This morning he runs into our room and tells me he loves me. The second talk, it seems, has taken hold. Sophie and Pat go downstairs to start breakfast and we play a game where I hug all his parts. I hug his feet, and his knees, his thumbs and even his hair, careful not to tickle or squeeze too hard. This moment feels so good, so natural. Peter feels it too. He smiles easily at me and my heart soars. A moment later I feel his body tense, slightly, and he kicks me; not so hard it hurts, but it’s not friendly. He turns his face away and swings back, anger flashing, revealing, if only briefly, the aggression that lurks beneath the surface. He doesn’t know why this happens. I ask and he says he doesn’t know. He is sorry. I’m sure he is. He can’t seem to hold a mood. He tries but something dark inside grabs hold, snuffing his will away. The spell can be broken, though I’m not sure by him. Someone else has to intercede, and usually it’s me. I’ve become chief guardian of Peter’s happy moments and easy mood, all the while staying vigilant against the undulating lability of his mind. The boy I love traces my tears with his fingers while his own drip shamelessly down his face. That boy deserves protecting. That boy deserves to know, deep in his bones, that I love him with every fiber of my being; that my love, though imperfect, is complete, whole and inalterable, just as my love for Sophie and Pat.
Chapter 16: We’re Home!
Before we adopted, most of my career was spent working as an enforcement attorney for the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Eight years in Atlanta and almost four in New York City. Pat playfully still refers to two of the attorneys in my division, Carl Garvey and Tom Lieber, as my “office husbands”. Carl was a fellow staff attorney and Tom was our supervisor. Both are exceptionally kind and generous people, and kidding aside, they and their families are among our most cherished friends.
When we finally made it through customs at JFK, where a bewildered Sophie and Peter were welcomed as U.S. citizens for the first time, Tom and Carl were waiting for us, happily waving a stuffed horse for Peter and a blue elephant for Sophie. They had picked up our car, which had been left at the Lieber’s in Oyster Bay, and driven it to the airport during rush hour so that we could leave directly for upstate. I was so happy to see my office husbands, with their goofy grins and bouncy steps, I audibly gasped with relief. We had gone through so much, our new family of four, in such a short time, and the finish line was within sight. Exhausted, scared, disoriented, and excited, we were in one piece, and thanks to our friends, would be home for good in just a couple more hours.
I don’t know how Pat managed to drive the 100 miles or so in his near comatose condition, but we arrived home in one piece. It was about 8 p.m. in New York and we decided to put the children to bed in their new rooms without fuss or fanfare. There would be plenty of time for exploration in the days and weeks to come. Sleep was priority number one. We changed them into pajamas and Pullups, brushed their teeth, and tucked them gently into their new beds. I remember them staring up at us, confused and disoriented but too exhausted to complain. Bending down to kiss the downy soft skin of their foreheads, I forever marked the memory of this occasion in the quiet refuge of my heart.
I was shocked to wake up that next morning and find the children still sleeping. I had listened for the better part of the night to the hushed sounds of the house, napping in brief snatches in case Sophie or Peter woke. I had every right to be dead on my feet but instead I felt exhilarated, ready to plunge into the life and role I’d been longing for since Pat and I first met. I’m not sure what I expected – pouncing, screaming, general chaos certainly, but what I found that early morning was a stillness that belied my newfound status. With Pat still sleeping too, I decided to tiptoe downstairs and survey our depleted breakfast stocks. It felt strange being in the house without our dog Scout, whom we would board for another two weeks. Normally she shadowed my every move. Though the size of our family had doubled, I felt oddly alone as I rummaged through the pantry, finding nothing to eat accept cereal with Parmalot milk and instant oatmeal. In the stillness of the kitchen, I noticed the sky blue boosters already strapped onto our kitchen chairs, standing empty but ready for action. Like the car seats, we had installed and tested them before leaving for Russia. I smiled a little nervously with the knowledge that our quiet home was about to come alive with the noisy throng of children.
Before we bought in early 2002, a 93-year-old spinster, the last of her line, had been born, raised and died in our old stone house. Her death ended 250 years of continual residency by one or more members of the same Dutch farming family. How many decades, I wondered, had it been since the old plank floors shook with the patter of little feet, the high-pitched squeals of laughing children reverberating off the thick plastered walls? Too long, I guessed.
But change was coming. There was no misinterpreting the sound of heavy thumping I soon heard upstairs. Merely 26 pounds, Peter nonetheless walked as heavily as a lumberjack, an undeniable fact Pat and I recognized almost immediately upon meeting him. Thud. Thud. My son was up. Our life as a family was beginning in earnest.
My sister Patty was due to arrive from Atlanta in four hours. Since our own mother had died a few years earlier, she would be filling the expanded role of mother, sister, friend and all-important crutch. Sophie and Peter adore Patty because of the way she treats and loves them, but also because children are programmed to intuit from their parents who is good, who is dangerous, who will protect, or who is trustworthy. Patty exudes goodness and quiet confidence, and when I was little I wanted to be just like her. Although some might say we’re more different than similar, I do believe we bring out the best in each other, and I’m certain Peter and Sophie sense our closeness. When we’re together, we have this way of filling the spaces around us with laughter, happily retreating into the center of our shared, occasionally secret, and always silly experiences. I desperately wanted her to meet Sophie, and to watch and study Peter, without the benefit of Pat’s and my concerns or preconceptions. I suppose I was looking for her reassurance that our fledgling family would be okay; whole, healthy and in possession of all of the ingredients needed to grow and thrive.
By the time I ran upstairs to check on Peter, the whole house was awake. Pat was wrestling into sweats, greedy for a cup of non-instant, fresh ground coffee. I gave him a quick kiss and hug, and then followed the noise across the hall. I found Peter in Sophie’s room, touching her new possessions one by one with wide-eyed wonderment. Stroking her pink and yellow quilt with one hand as she clutched the blue elephant given to her by Carl and Tom in the other, I watched as she studied, mouth agape, Peter’s near reverent explorations from the quiet command post of her new bed. Furniture, rugs, rocking chair, wallpaper, books, closets, clothes, stuffed animals, drawers, and hampers: items commonly found in children’s bedrooms around the world but notably absent from Russian institutions for orphaned babies and toddlers.
After having them use the potty, Pat and I tried carrying the children downstairs but both insisted on walking. Sophie was particularly unsteady on her feet and was already covered in bruises from the collective effect of her newfound freedom. She didn’t want me to hold her hand on the stairs but I insisted. I counted one two three as we slowly stepped down, Peter’s footsteps pounding heavily behind us.
“Gera, Gera, Gera . . .” he repeated.
“Peter-Gera,” Pat suggested.
Since Peter had not stopped repeating his name, Pat cleverly decided to use this preoccupation to introduce the American name we had chosen for him. After the adoptions we began calling them “Gera-Peter” and “Katya-Sophie” but once home, we reversed the order in an effort to gradually drop the Russian familiar. At the time, I was convinced of the correctness of our decision to change their names, especially since German LoBrutto and Ekaterina LoBrutto don’t roll easily off the tongue, but now I’m not so sure. In the name of rescue and family, we stripped our children of every ounce of their former, tenuous identities. There’s no doubt they are forever Peter and Sophie now, their names imbued with our love to the same extent as would have occurred if we’d named them at birth. But still, it may have been an unwise choice. Their Russian names were the one part of their former lives we could have left intact.
Pat managed to make pancakes for breakfast thanks to a squirreled away box of Bisquick, and the children gobbled up every bite. I remember Pat staring at the two of them, happily belted into their new boosters at our breakfast bar, and noticing that the bags under his eyes were deeper than they should have been.
He was so tired. At 56, he was no longer a young man, and we had committed to an incredible, life-altering undertaking. Sophie and Peter were needy, not necessarily healthy, and undoubtedly carrying emotional and developmental scars that had yet to reveal themselves. They were also virtual strangers. I could see the self-doubt in his face but there was nothing to be done, at least not then. This was Sophie and Peter’s first morning home, and they needed us.
I needed them too. I was desperate to interact with Peter and excited to strengthen the fledgling bond I was cultivating with Sophie. Because we had read so many books about adoption and attended Dr. Aronson’s adoptive parenting classes, we were careful not to overload the children’s sensory systems with too many new toys. So I took out the same few Duplo blocks from Peter’s backpack and the doll and kitchen toys from Sophie’s, and placed them on the floor in front of the fireplace. Then I patted the rug to entice them to come toward me. My efforts were interrupted, though, because the kitchen door swung open and I found myself staring at my brother Mark, who was standing impishly in the doorway with a small duffle bag in hand.
“Facial,” he beamed, addressing me by one of several inexplicable nicknames he’s devised over the years. “Are these the kids?” I nearly broke down in tears when I saw him. Not only was Patty on her way, but Mark was there too. The older brother who terrorized me daily throughout my childhood was at that moment, and in my eyes, the sweetest, most welcome sight in the world. While we were still in Moscow, he figured out a way to finagle his impossibly busy trial schedule so that he could spend 32 hours with the kids and us. Grabbing Pat and I brusquely by the shoulders, he pulled us to him like a quarterback preparing to huddle.
“So what are we doing today?” he laughed. Peter and Sophie hadn’t moved a muscle since their new uncle appeared but they knew enough to stare, transfixed. In the way that big men can be surprisingly gentle, Mark untangled himself from us and made his way toward the children, bending down to their level and then ever so carefully lifting first Peter, then Sophie, into his arms. Any faint doubts I had concerning whether my family would be able to fully embrace our Russian children disappeared in that instant. The tears I’d been holding back flowed freely and with quivering voice I managed to yell shut-up to both Pat and Mark as they began teasing me about the waterworks.
Although I admit I’ve been known to sob without warning over the milk carton children, these tears were fully justified, and personal. I was tired and running on nothing but nervous energy. Pat was near shock too and showing signs of becoming seriously overwhelmed. Even though I always believed my southern siblings would hop on a plane at a moment’s notice if ever I truly needed them, the theory had never been tested. The surprise of watching my brother walk through our door made me realize how wonderfully important it is to be loved, truly loved, to be part of a family or circle of friends larger and stronger than yourself. Mark was standing in our kitchen, grinning like a kid at Christmas, and Patty was on her way. Pat and I could have survived those first few days on our own, but it was a great relief knowing we weren’t alone. Pat and I may have made a mistake changing our children’s names, but the gift of family is one I hope Peter and Sophie will always cherish and appreciate.
Patty pulled into the driveway in a Ford rental a few hours later, ushering in a second wave of energy and a necessary call to action. She was the only one in the house who had more than a week’s worth of bona fide mothering experience, and so she naturally assumed a commanding role. Groceries had to be bought, clothes and shoes that actually fit needed to be secured, and for some reason, the four of us decided that Sophie and Peter needed to have tricycles, immediately.
Patty and I would shop later that afternoon, once Sophie and Peter were napping. I remember being so proud of my children as I watched them interact with my sister and brother. Despite the complete upheaval they’d been made to endure, their resilience, with some notable exceptions, shined through in those first days and weeks at home. Sophie examined every square inch of Patty, looking in her mouth, her ears, her nose, even pulling apart strands of hair to study her roots and scalp. She had done the same to me in Russia and I was tickled to see the routine repeat itself on my living room couch.
Peter was indifferent toward my sister but mesmerized by Mark, whom he followed with great devotion. I watched as they built Duplo towers together and laughed when he showed Peter how to make them crash, causing my new son to scream at the top of his lungs and wag an angry finger in Mark’s direction. It was the loudest noise Peter had made since that first night in Moscow and it caused all of us to stop and take stock. It was also an early clue as to his absolute need for external order and predictability.
One of my favorite memories of those first days home happened on the same night that Patty and Mark arrived. After putting the children to bed, which was shockingly easy as they showed no inkling of being afraid as well as no inclination to wander, we set about unpacking the large Fischer Price tricycle boxes that Patty and I had purchased at Toys-R-Us earlier that day. We planned to spend no more than forty minutes on assembly so that we could devote the rest of the evening to talking about our trip and just enjoying each other’s company. What we didn’t take into account was the fact that my siblings and I are lawyers and Pat is a fiction editor, which means the four of us are largely devoid of everyday, useful skills. It didn’t help that the directions were the size of a hymnal and each box came with six bags of plastic nuts, bolts, and other integral yet mysterious parts. Not even the pedals came preassembled.
In no time at all, forty minutes became four hours and the living room was still strewn with plastic parts whose bright colors flickered ominously in the fireplace light. For reasons that remain unclear, I decided that smores might improve our chances of success and so I searched for the necessary ingredients and a few spare coat hangers. I don’t know if it was the smores that did it, but eventually we finished, a few beer bottles littering the coffee table, somewhere around midnight. We were exhausted, stiff, and punch drunk, but we stood united and humbled in the presence of our awesome, and slightly sticky, accomplishment.
I awoke smiling the next morning with the memory of the previous night’s escapades. I’ll never know why we decided tricycles were necessary for Sophie and Peter to begin their new lives, especially since their legs were too weak to even pedal. But the trikes were downstairs, ready and waiting to be used, and hopefully without serious defect in assemblage. The thought of taking our children to the emergency room on our second whole day home was not one I savored.
Pat was the first to greet Peter that morning and was therefore the first on the scene. In the months and years to come, we would grow accustomed to the ritual though never the shock. Pat found Peter sitting squarely in the middle of his bed, wearing his pajamas and peering serenely about the room. He had defecated on one end and urinated on the other. At three years three months, his caregivers told us that Peter was completely potty trained, day and night. True to their word, he had not had a single accident since becoming ours. That morning was no exception. Upon inspection, Pat discovered that his pajamas and underpants were dry and completely unsoiled. The quest to unravel the mystery of our son, his mind, his motives, his fears and damaged heart, was officially underway.